One of my goals for 2016 was to take as many food technique classes as I could find. One of the first I bumped into was a sausage making course at Avril-Bleh Meats in downtown Cincinnati. They’re a legacy butcher shop, founded in the early 20th century by Ferd Avril, a German-American butcher. Currently owned by Len Bleh, they still make the many old Cincinnati German recipe sausages, like oatmeal links – a close first cousin to goetta – and other unique Cincinnati items like cottage ham. Avril’s also supply great restaurants around greater Cincinnati – like the brat that goes on the Girthburger at Zip’s in Mt Lookout, Moerlein Lager House, and the dogs for the Senate in Over-the-Rhine. I thought they had the ‘Germanic street cred’ I sought.
Ferd Avril making oatmeal links (goetta sausage) 1920s.
So when I saw that they offered a 4 hour sausage making course for $120, I was in. The class was open for 10 spots and gave students an entire morning working with the owner, Len Bleh, his son, and one of their other employees grinding, mixing spices, emulsifying, casing, and rolling a variety of sausages. We made the typical Cincinnati brat, fresh mett, Italian, Polish, small link, Yard Sausage, Irish Bangers, chorizo, andouille and one they call Beer Baron, which is made exclusively for Moerlein and is a cross between chorizo and Cincinnati mett. Avril’s distinguishes between their yard sausage and fresh mett, with spice blend. The Yard sausage has paprika and garlic, where the fresh mett does not. Another legacy butcher, Ecklerin Meats, says they’re the same thing, although, they include mace (nutmeg) as a spice, which Avril’s doesn’t. The name comes from the fact that yard sausage was originally sold by the yard and not by the pound.
Avril’s takes their sausages seriously. They don’t use nitrate preservatives, but when frozen their sausages can stay for up to 6 months. They have a sausage of the month to try new and different sausages. Last month they did a Korean barbecue sausage, that I tried at lunch and was fantastic, and next month they’re trying a new Hungarian sausage called Debrecenerwurst, heavily spiced with paprika, marjoram, garlic and pepper. They use a few heritage breeds of pork from Indiana, like the Berkshire breed, which Len says contains more fat and better marbeling of fat than commercially produced pork.
Our class was more diverse than I expected. We had a woman from Spain, who was on the hunt for Spanish chorizo, a Russian woman & her Cincy husband, an Australian foodie, a chef a month away from opening a new downtown barbecue place, his foodie bud, and two non-foodie guys who got the class as a Christmas present.
Each sausage had its own recipe, spice blend and grinding and mixing procedures. We made them in about 15 pound batches. Our first wurst was the Cincinnati brat, which was ground once, and then added to a 100 year old bowl turner called the ‘Boss Silent Cutter’ made in 1916 by Cincinnati Butcher’s Supply Company. The name silent mixer was ironic because the machine was anything but silent. In fact, Len mentioned that it was because of the noise of these old type machines that made many butchers hard-of-hearing in later years. Many of the other legacy meat markets in Greater Cincinnati have decades old equipment like this in their respective shops.
Spices of salt, pepper, nutmeg and granulated sugar were added after the brat’s the first grind, and then parsley and onion powder were added later in the bowl turner, along with ice to keep the meat from heating and the fat from rendering. Len says salt is typically added in the ratio of 34 ounces of salt per 100 pounds of meat, but that was the only spice ratio he revealed. The goal of the bowl turner was to emulsify the meat mix into sort of a paste or a ‘meat cream’ before casing. I asked why no milk powder was added to the brat, and Len said that’s only used when there is a lot of fat in the meat. In that case after being boiled, the meat turns an unappetizing brownish gray, and the milk powder prevents that color change from occurring.
Brats are one of the few sausages piped into a collagen casing, because they are boiled to turn the typical whitish-gray of the brat. Len’s son was the one to show us how to pipe and link the sausage, which he did with brilliant ease. The machine has a changeable horn for the different diameter sausages, and is vacuum operated, with a knee pedal to pipe out the meat into its specific casing, which is preloaded onto the horn.
I asked Len about the difference between the Cincinnati Mett and the bockwurst. He said bockwurst is more simply spiced with just salt pepper parsley and chives, but similarly made. In Cincinnati and the U.S., the bockwurst is more like the Bavarian weisswurst than the typical modern bockwurst. And the weisswurst is the grandfather to our Cincinnati brat. Both weisswurst and Cincinnati brat are non-smoked pork sausages boiled to white color and made in a natural casing or without casing.
Fresh mett is spiced with salt, pepper, and whole ground mustard seed and was ground twice to a fine consistency. The spices are added after the grind so to keep the mustard seed whole in the sausage. Bangers used a pork casing, which is the most common casing, and was the only sausage we made that had a grain filler, in this case, breadcrumbs. Italian used salt, pepper, garlic, and whole fennel and anise seeds. The tiny links sausage were ground twice and used sage, salt, pepper, nutmeg, and tomato juice, prevents the sausage from turning gray. It’s ground twice and spices are mixed in with the second grind. The Polish used salt, sugar, allspice, coarse ground pepper, and marjoram, a commonality with other Eastern European sausages. Their chorizo is more of a Mexican version than a Spanish chorizo and our version used uncured meat. Spanish chorizo, according to our Spanish classmate, uses half spicy paprika, and sweet paprika. Avril’s doesn’t use paprika, but garlic, oregano, chili powder, and other spices. It was the last sausage we linked because the vinegar used acts as sort of a cleaning agent to the mixer.
We all got a chance to grind, mix, pipe, and link the sausages. It was interesting to see the different ways each sausage was spiced, ground, cased and linked, and great to get that hands on experience with commercial equipment. Another delight of the class was that we tasted the sausages we were making at lunch, which were stewed with Avril’s amazing homemade sauerkraut. As a take home, each student received 10 pounds of sausage, including each variety we made. Our diploma was an Avril-Bleh T-shirt and it was clear everyone went away with a great experience.
It’s important we understand the benefits of still having indie butchers and legacy butchers around. And, if we want them to stick around it’s important that we continue to patronize them as regular customers. The quality of their meats and the freshness of their products is always better than the big box chain retail stores. Many have access to local farms and heritage breeds, like Avril-Bleh. And, taking a class puts you hands-on into this experience. I highly recommend taking classes from your local butcher.